Skip to content. | Skip to navigation

Personal tools
You are here: Home topics Environment Environment in the European Union

Environment in the European Union

24 August 2006
by eub2 -- last modified 24 August 2006

Protecting the environment is essential for the quality of life of current and future generations. The challenge is to combine this with continuing economic growth in a way which is sustainable over the long term. European Union environment policy is based on the belief that high environmental standards stimulate innovation and business opportunities.


Our future, Our Choice

The cornerstone of EU environmental action is an Action Programme entitled Environment 2010: Our Future, Our Choice, which focuses on:

  • climate change and global warming;
  • the natural habitat and wildlife;
  • environment and health issues;
  • natural resources and managing waste.

Cross-cutting issues are addressed via thematic strategies dealing with air pollution, waste prevention recycling, the marine environment, soil, pesticides, resource use and the urban environment.

In addition, the Action Programme emphasises the importance of:

  • enforcing existing environmental laws;
  • taking the environmental impact into account in all relevant EU policies (e.g. agriculture, development, energy, fisheries, industry, the internal market, transport);
  • closely involving business and consumers in identifying solutions to environmental problems;
  • giving people the information they need to make environmentally friendly choices;
  • raising awareness of the importance of using land wisely in order to preserve natural habitats and landscapes, and minimise urban pollution.

Over the life of this and five earlier action programmes and after 30 years of standard-setting, the EU has established a comprehensive system of environmental protection. The issues covered range from noise to waste, from chemicals to car exhausts, from bathing water to an EU-wide network to deal with environmental disasters, such as oil spills or forest fires.

Concerns about the impact of pollution on people's health have been taken up in an Environment and Health Action Plan for the period 2004-2010. Our health is increasingly affected by environmental factors and this programme improves our knowledge of the links in order to improve protection and prevention.

Overall, the goal is to provide a broadly equivalent level of protection throughout the EU, while being flexible enough to take local circumstances into account and recognising . that there is a balance to be struck between environmental protection and the needs for business to remain internationally competitive.

This approach is shaping an overhaul of the current patchwork of rules with a single system for Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals (REACH) to be managed by a new European Chemicals Agency in Helsinki. The objective is to avoid chemical contamination of air, water, soil and buildings in the interests of biodiversity and better health and safety for the EU's citizens while not overburdening industry with regulation.

All policy is based on the 'polluter pays' principle. Payment may take the form of the investment needed to meet higher standards, a requirement to take back, recycle or dispose of products after use, or a tax on business or consumers for using an environmentally unfriendly product, such as some types of packaging.

When environmental threats are potential rather than proven, the European Commission applies what is known as the precautionary principle, i.e. it proposes protective measures if the risk seems real even if there is no absolute scientific certainty.

Combating climate change

As part of its strategy to combat climate change under the Kyoto Protocol, the EU has introduced the world's first emissions trading system. EU governments issue allocations to industrial and energy businesses authorising them to emit carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, up to a certain limit. Firms who do not use all their certificates can sell the surplus to firms who want to avoid the hefty fines associated with exceeding their emissions ceiling.

The Commission has proposed extending the emissions trading scheme to airlines. Airlines contribute some 3% of EU greenhouse gas emissions, but air travel is growing particularly fast, and plane emissions could negate one quarter of the emissions cuts required of energy-intensive industries by the Kyoto Protocol.

Obligations under the Kyoto Protocol run only to 2012, but the Commission has already launched consultation on post-2012 climate change policy.

Taking a broader view

Recent Action Programmes have reflected a shift in policy away from merely controlling the use of specific substances or products to encouraging the use of safer alternatives and thinking about what will happen when a product reaches the end of its useful life. Car design, for example, must now take into account how the component parts will be recycled and disposed of when the car is scrapped.

Public participation

A sustainable environment depends on individual citizens being personally committed. Public consultation is incorporated in the common procedures applying across the EU for assessing the environmental impact of public sector policies and programmes, and of investment projects. The work of grassroots networks is facilitated by Commission funding. The eco-label scheme helps citizens make environmentally sound purchases of a wide range of goods and services. The EMAS (eco-management and audit scheme) allows companies and service organisations to demonstrate their high environmental standards.

The European Environment Agency

Monitoring the state of the environment and providing early warning of coming problems is the job of the European Environment Agency in Copenhagen. The agency:

  • provides policy makers with information on which to base their decisions;
  • promotes best practice in environmental protection and technologies;
  • disseminates the results of environmental research.

Funding to improve the environment

Research into environmental issues and schemes to protect the natural habitat or the environment receives funding under the LIFE programme, EU research programmes and regional development programmes. LIFE has a EUR 317 million budget for 2005-2006. Some non-EU countries elsewhere in Europe and around the Mediterranean are also eligible for LIFE grants.

Funding for environmental projects in countries of the southern Mediterranean is also available through the MEDA programme of general economic assistance to this region. The priorities are integrated water management, waste management, 'hot spots' where there is a particular threat to biodiversity or from pollution, integrated coastal zone management and desertification.

Meeting global challenges

Many environmental problems transcend the EU's borders. Consequently, the EU has signed up to international programmes and conventions on a wide range of problems, including acid rain, biodiversity, climate change and greenhouse gases, desertification, hazardous waste, oil spills, persistent organic pollutants, protection of major rivers and seas, and tropical forests.

EU Environment web links

European Commission Environment DG
EU Funding Opportunities in the Field of Environment
Summaries of EU Legislation in Force: Environment Policy
Recent case-law of the Court of Justice and the Court of First Instance : EU Environment
Further information on EU Environment Policy on Europa

Source: European Commission
Last updated: March 2006